A great idea this. Take Jim Hall, the quiet experimentalist of the jazz guitar, and a man with almost 50 years of thoughtful and innovative work behind him, and offer him a series of duets and trios with some of the world’s leading bass players. As these include Charlie Haden, Christian McBride and Dave Holland, the creativity will surely flow and the level of all round excellence will have every modernist slavering or swooning. Well, indeed it will, although this is not as immediately appealing a set as one would have hoped. It is worth getting to know but the whole project suffers from being a little too self-contained and introverted. Hall’s inventiveness wins out in the end but it might take you at least a couple of listens to overcome the feeling that this is music for a specialist audience only.
Maybe that is the intention. Bass players and guitarists will certainly relish the intimacy of the dialogue. Jazz buffs will readily appreciate the easy move that Hall can make from standards to the most abstract piece. Those who still greet anything atonal as groundbreakingly thrilling will doubtless applaud wildly at the refusal to be held within the confines of orthodox harmonics and time signatures. The reputation of the musicians will probably be enough in itself to see this disc get four stars in every reputable jazz journal. I am not suggesting a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes operates here, but I do have doubts. At times it does seem a little dull, not to say lifeless, and a Philistine like me longed for another voice, a piano or brushes maybe, just to give the pieces a little more colour.
Seventy minutes is a long time for such rarefied fare—even with players of this caliber. The duo form is popular in jazz at the moment and is one Hall himself has been involved for decades. He made a wonderful album with Paul Desmond eons ago. There is enough stylistic and compositional variation, although Hall’s restrained guitar sound often obscures the fact. Careful listening is required, then the nuances and the pleasures start to emerge.
I suppose what I’m skirting round is the cliché that Hall is essentially an intellectual musician—the sort that the adjective “cerebral” inevitably attaches itself to. It can’t, I am afraid be avoided. This is music for the mind rather than the heart and certainly not for the body. It is Chamber Jazz in every sense—complex and contemplative. It is intriguing in its own way but demands that the listener move towards it. Hall has been around too long to go chasing anyone. He was always part of the understated faction of the modern movement—working most famously with Chico Hamilton and Jimmy Giuffre. They made less waves than Coleman and his followers but were subversives nonetheless. This is still Hall’s approach. Each item is almost familiar—and almost sounds conventional—but doesn’t quite do what you expect it to. The audience has to interpret his interpretations, as it were. This, in some moods, is a delightful game. In some moods.
The indicatively titled “End the Beguine” opens proceedings. Haden on bass, and Hall on 12-string acoustic. Fairly abstract and decidedly unfunky, it has the odd moment of inspiration—such as the bizarre “Third Man Theme” zither sound Hall manages to wrest from his instrument. This is followed by the first of four pieces actually entitled “Abstract”. Cool to the point of coldness, the best are those that feature George Mraz on bowed bass. Mraz who makes up a trio with Scott Colley on two Abstracts and the final take, “Tango Loco”, is a bonus. His mid-European, classical bowing adds some much needed lyricism to the venture.
“Sam Jones” and “Don’t Explain” feature Holland and Haden respectively. Neither are exactly lively affairs but as examples of mastery of shape and structure have a distant but distinct grandeur about them which may impress. My preferences, however, are for the collaborations with long-time partner Scott Colley (with or without Mraz) or the more straightforward talent of Christian McBride. These are mostly the simpler, more mainstream items—so I suppose it depends on one’s own position vis-a-vis the modernist continuum. Most critics will opt for the Haden or the Holland.
McBride supplies standard, bluesy walking bass patterns to two Hall originals, “Bent Blue” and “Dog Walk”. Hall, on what must be the least amplified-sounding electric guitar style in history, shows how freshly and nimbly he can play around with melodic lines and incidental phrases while McBride gives the numbers a jauntiness that is very welcome. Colley acts more like a traditional sideman rather than a duettist—something not to be sneered at. On “Besame Mucho” this allows Hall to fill the gaps and spaces with less reluctance than he displays elsewhere. It is the most flamboyant of the duos and the one I suggest you go to first.
Do not get the impression that there are a number of very straight jazz-guitar pieces surrounded by some wild avant-gardism. The divide is not as neat as that and Hall is incapable of wildness in any format. It is rather that on the Haden/Holland numbers there is more of a mutual- lead-instrument exchange of ideas, which is rather less the case with Colley or McBride. The addition of Mraz adds a genuine European sensibility to an already classically inclined set and, maybe unsurprisingly, those seem the most appropriate to the overall mood of the sessions.
Hall has a steady following in the jazz world but, as can be seen in the line-up, an even higher one among musicians. His most famous protégé (and occasional partner) is Pat Metheny, whose playing still bears one or two of the characteristic qualities of his former teacher. Those include poise and assuredness and an analytic approach to music which will probably always appeal more to the expert than the casual listener. Hall has played jazz in almost every conceivable style and setting in a long career. This is him in his “Post-Graduate Seminar” mode. Like many of those strange beasts it is a highly erudite but apparently hermetically sealed ritual, at least on initial acquaintance. If you have the patience, stick with it and maybe do some background research. Then you will reap the rewards.